TODAY’S KEY MATCHUP
IDAHO STATE’S RECEIVERS VS. UTAH’S SECONDARY
There’s no time for Idaho State’s young receivers to acclimate to new roles. Not against a Pac-12 secondary.
The Bengals lost three of their top four receivers from last year's squad. With Luke Austin and Cam Richmond gone to graduation and Chad Hansen leaving the program, Idaho State has to replace 2,097 yards and 20 touchdowns worth of offensive passing production.
Of course, ISU’s senior quarterback Justin Arias is still around, and the Bengals should be improved along the offensive line. Those two factors alone will help ease the transition to an almost entirely new group of receivers.
Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer has always said he isn’t concerned with that the new players will be able to do. Along with returning receivers Broc Malcom (54 catches for 524 yards in 2013) and Josh Cook (32-317), ISU is working in guys like sophomores Madison Mangum (7-76) and KW Williams (7-76).
“We play enough catch during practice, our receivers will be just fine,” Kramer said.
Against Utah, a team that allowed 267 yards in the air per game in 2013, Idaho State’s receivers will have to be on point right away. The Utes will employ a lot of press and cover-one coverage.
“We like one-on-one situations because it’s easier for you to get open if you have a good release, and the way we’ve been coached we want one-on-ones,” Malcom said.
Cook, a tight end from Santa Ana, Calif., will play a key role against the Utah secondary. He’s shown an ability to breakaway from tight man-to-man coverage, Kramer says. If Idaho State receivers are not able to find openings against the Utah secondary, Arias will be left to fend for himself.
“I’m sure Utah will sit on top of our receivers and our receivers will work to get open,” Kramer said. “They’ve got to make sure that window that Justin is going to give them, it’s going to be tight, they’ve got to make some catches.”
IDAHO STATE KEYS TO SUCCESS
1) Replacing Gremaud
Replacing starting linebacker PJ Gremaud seems like a nice place to start. Gremaud isn’t a star for the Bengals on defense, but he is an experienced linebacker ... unlike his assumed replacement, freshman Mario Jenkins.
Jenkins is a pure athlete and the Idaho State coaching staff thinks he’s a future star for the Bengals. But at 225 pounds, Jenkins is still filling his frame and he hasn’t played a down in a college football game.
Idaho State recruited Jenkins out of Columbia High School in Nampa as a running back. When Jenkins signed with Idaho State in 2013, he told the Idaho Press-Tribune that he chose ISU because he was told he would play on offense.
“That’s where I see myself right now, and that’s where my heart is,” Jenkins said at the time. "I had the scholarship offer last year, and I was debating about going there, and once I went to (Pocatello) I fell in love with it.”
In 2013, Jenkins did redshirt for the Bengals as a running back, but the 6-foot-1, 225-pound athlete made the move to the other side of the ball in his second year at ISU.
Jenkins will step on the field against Utah as one of Idaho State’s most athletic defensive players, but the learning curve is going to be steep.
2) Dealing with Utah’s pace
Utah hired Dave Christensen to speed things up. As the head coach of Wyoming (2009-13) and the offensive coordinator at Missouri (2001-08) before that, Christensen honed a scheme, particularly at Wyoming, that went fast and tried to wear down defenses.
“We expect them to be uptempo, go fast; three, four wide receiver team that runs some read option,” said ISU head coach Mike Kramer. “So a very good program. Obviously a very talented offense.”
Idaho State isn’t necessarily concerned with the Utes going at an accelerated pace. ISU likes to go pretty fast on offense itself, so the Bengal defense has been exposed to the no-huddle.
“We are pretty well prepared to play against the spread offense having faced our guys all spring and again all through fall camp,” Kramer said. “The problem is, we’ve got some new guys, particularly in the back end, particularly at cornerback, we’ve got to make sure their eyes don’t go to sleep on them and they don’t get caught daydreaming as the wide receivers go downtown against them.”
Ultimately, the Bengals are less concerned with what Utah will do. At this point, Idaho State just needs to show it can cap big plays over the top and force Utah to earn its way down the field on every possession. As always, Kramer will have his eyes on his safeties to see if they continue to evolve as leaders and playmakers.
3) Avoiding special teams gaffes
No one involved with the Idaho State program is talking upset against Utah. Who knows what’s going on inside the Bengal locker room, but ISU is projecting a humble, workmanlike attitude leading up to today’s opening kick.
“This is an inordinate task. This is a hard one,” Kramer said. “They’re a competitive team in the Pac-12 and we expect them to be as good of a team as we’ve lined up against the last four years.”
Idaho State will not define success against Utah based on the final score. The Bengals want to make sure the Utes earn everything they get. Not melting down in the kicking game is a point of emphasis, in particular.
It’s ISU freshman placekicker Zak Johnson’s first opportunity to play in a Division I college football game, and the Bengals know Utah’s depth and athleticism can wreak havoc in kickoffs and kick returns.
“We’ve got to avoid the avalanche in the kicking game,” Kramer said. “That’s really a big question mark for us, because now (Utah head coach) Kyle (Whittingham) is running his own kick teams. So now it’s head coach versus head coach in the kicking game. ... We’re a dicey team on the kicking game ourself. We’d like to not take chances.”